There are few things less understood than the real nature of exhortation. We are prone to attach an idea of legal effort to the word which is quite foreign to it. Divine exhortation always assumes that a certain relationship exists, that a certain standing is enjoyed and that certain privileges are apprehended. The Holy Spirit never exhorts except on a divine basis. For example: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the compassions of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, [which is] your intelligent service (Rom. 12: 1, my emphasis). Here we have a fine example of divine exhortation. The “compassions of God” are first put before us in all their fullness, brightness and preciousness, before we are called to hear the voice of exhortation. To present our bodies “a living sacrifice” is not put on the basis of some rule with which we are to strive to comply, but in response to all that God has done for us in Christ––“the compassions of God”.
Again, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which ye have been sealed for [the] day of redemption” (Eph. 4: 30, my emphasis). Here we are exhorted on the settled ground of our being “sealed”. He does not say ‘Do not grieve the Spirit, lest you are eternally lost’. Such would not be in keeping with the true character of divine exhortation. We “have been sealed”––not as long as we behave ourselves––but “for” (or until) “[the] day of redemption”. It is done, and this is the powerful reason given why we are not to grieve the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is the eternal seal of God, and has been set upon us until the day of redemption, how careful we should be not to grieve him!
One more Scripture: “If therefore ye have been raised with the Christ, seek these things [which are] above” (Col. 3: 1). As those who are risen, what should we seek but “things above”? We do not seek these things in order to be risen, but because we are. In other words, the solid basis of our standing is laid down by the Spirit of grace before ever the voice of exhortation falls on the ear. This is divine. Anything else would be mere legality. To call upon a man to set his affections on things above before he knows, upon divine authority, that he is “raised with the Christ” is to begin at the wrong end. It is only when I believe the precious emancipating truth that when Christ died, I died, and that when He was buried, I was buried, and that when He rose, I rose, that I am ready to set my affections on things above. It is only when these grand realities take possession of my soul that I can lend an open ear and an understanding heart to exhortation’s heavenly voice.
It is well for my reader to understand this thoroughly. There is no need whatever for a multitude of words. Let him simply take his NT and trace throughout the exhortations of the Spirit of God. Without a single exception he will find that they are completely divested of the legal element. This subject is not fully understood. Exhortation in the hands of man is widely different from what it is in the hands of the Holy Spirit. How often do we hear men exhorting us to a certain line of action in order that we may reach certain privileges? The way of the Spirit of God is the reverse of this. He sets before us our standing in Christ in the first place, and then He unfolds our walk. He first speaks of privilege – free, unconditional, privilege – and then He sets forth the holy responsibility connected with it. He first presents the settled and unalterable relationship in which free grace has set us and then He dwells upon the affections which belong to it.
There is nothing so hateful to the Spirit of God as legality, that pernicious system which casts us as doers back upon self instead of casting us as lost sinners upon Christ. Man likes to do something but he must be brought to the end of himself, and to the end of all beside, and then, as a lost sinner, find his rest in Christ – a full, precious, all-sufficient Christ. In this way alone can he only expect solid peace and true happiness, and only then will he ever be able to yield an intelligent response to the Spirit’s word of exhortation.